'Behind the Pearl Earrings' Highlights The Life of War Photographer Dickey Chapelle

Dec 27, 2016

Last year, Lake Effect introduced you to John Garofolo, the editor of a collection of photos by the late war photographer and Shorewood native, Dickey Chapelle. Chapelle was the first US female war correspondent killed in action. But before her death in the early days of the Vietnam War, Chapelle lived an extraordinary life, taking distinctive pictures that showed both the cost of war, and the personal side of it.

Credit Wisconsin HIstorical Society

"From the very beginning as a young girl, she didn't care that it was the 1930s and the 1940s, she was very determined to do what she wanted to do," says director, screenwriter, and co-producer Maryann Lazarski. The documentary, Behind the Pearl Earrings, will be shown twice during this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.

Lazarski's interest in Chapelle first started when the Milwaukee Press Club wanted to induct Chapelle into their hall of fame two years ago. Before then, she had never heard of the war correspondent.

"It just kind of kept bugging me, like 'who is this woman?'" Lazarski recalls. "So I suggested to our executive producer, maybe there's something here. It seems like she's important, but not a lot of people know about her."

Despite many of Chapelle's photographs, journals and work being housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society, Chapelle was not widely recognized for her work - nationally or locally - during the height of her career. Lazarski hopes this documentary will change that for viewers today.

"Timing is everything," says Lazarski. When Dickey Chapelle was trying to get her career as a war correspondent started, other female correspondents such as Margaret Bourke-White and Marguerite Higgins were already established and popular. "I think (Chapelle) just flew under the radar and just kind of went along her business. She was very determined...but it just kind of got lost."

Maryann Lazarski with veteran journalist Joseph Galloway. Dickey Chapelle was a friend and close mentor to Galloway during the Vietnam War.
Credit Courtesy of Maryann Lazarski

With testimonials from Chapelle's family members and fellow war journalists, the documentary chronicles her confidence, determination, admitted quirkiness and character that created such meaningful work.

Chapelle was never interested in becoming a homemaker or English teacher, despite her family's wishes. Instead, she was determined to become a pilot. When that could not become a reality due to sight issues, she dived into the risky world of war journalism; covering everything from American troops in World War II, relief efforts in Europe and some of the earliest American conflicts in Vietnam.

"Given that time period...you had to be that kind of character with that kind of personality to achieve what she did," says Lazarski. "I think she showed what she believed in through her storytelling. Her photographs, things that she wrote - she really wanted to really tell the real stories."

READ: Remembering Wisconsin War Photographer Dickey Chapelle 50 Years Later

For Lazarski, making this documentary was a challenge not only due to the resources available to her, but how to use these sources to best depict a woman ahead of her time. One difficult decision in particular was including the famous photograph and film of Dickey Chapelle when she died in the field amongst Marines in Vietnam.

"We thought it was important to show the real deal and what was going on, so we didn't doctor it or change it at all," Lazarski explains.  "I think what Dickey Chapelle stood for was going after the truth, and so we felt like we did the right thing."

*Originally aired September 2016